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Robert E. Lee's legacy under review

Historians split on his significance

WASHINGTON -- Two hundred years after his birth, Confederate General Robert E. Lee remains a pivotal, controversial, and complicated figure in American history -- revered by some, reviled by others, and a central figure in America's history and continuing race and culture wars.

Historical groups planned lectures, a banquet, and artillery salutes to mark the 200th anniversary of the Confederate strategist's birth on Jan. 19, 1807.

Events were scheduled throughout the weekend at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., at Lee's birthplace, and in Richmond, the former Confederate capital, as well as in other Southern states.

In Virginia, where Lee was born, fought in the Civil War, and died -- no matter whether he's viewed as a hero who fought brilliantly and valiantly for states' rights or as a traitor bent on protecting his state's right to own slaves -- his legacy looms large. Lee highways crisscross the state, Lee bridges cross rivers, and schools are named for him.

But beyond the heat and noise created by Lee's 21st-century defenders and detractors, there is a new move to reevaluate Lee and his legacy.

The premise of the new look is perhaps as controversial as Lee's image: As the South has become more racially and ethnically diverse and has prospered economically, perhaps the South doesn't need Lee so much anymore, or at least not in the same way.

"Now there are all sorts of other ways in which Southerners identify themselves -- Salvadorans, Mexicans, Asians -- [and] the politics and economics of the region are no longer based on white supremacy," said W. Fitzhugh Brundage, a historian at the University of North Carolina and a member of the Society of the Lees of Virginia.

"It makes all the sense in the world that for more and more Southerners, Robert E. Lee is just a footnote, " he said.

At Arlington House at Arlington National Cemetery -- the old Lee mansion and plantation where Union officers began burying the Civil War dead -- Lee's bicentennial was commemorated with a symposium, "Does Lee Matter?"

And at Washington and Lee University, where Lee became president after the Civil War, the bicentennial is being marked with "Re-visioning Lee," an art exhibit exploring how Lee's image has been exploited for various causes.

Another big draw was the discussion "What Lee Means Today," led by two history professors; one white and one African-American.

Not too far from Lee Chapel, where Lee is buried and which boasts a marble statue of him reclining with his hand on his sword, awaiting battle, Theodore Carter DeLaney, the black professor, passed out a 1928 essay on Lee by African-American writer W.E.B. DuBois.

"It is ridiculous to seek to excuse Robert Lee" because he "led a bloody war to perpetuate human slavery," DuBois wrote.

"At Washington and Lee, all things are on the table for debate and discussion, including Robert E. Lee," Delaney said. "Nothing's too sacred. And that's an important change."

Lee was born at Stratford Plantation on the Northern Neck of Virginia and was the fifth child of Revolutionary War hero Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee. He attended West Point and never received a demerit.

By all accounts handsome, tall, charismatic, and humble, he had a long and illustrious career in the US Army. In 1861, as Southern states contemplated secession, Lee privately ridiculed the idea.

Still, when he was offered command of the Union Army, he turned it down once Virginia -- his "country" -- seceded.

Once the war ended, Lee resisted calls to continue the fight in the hills as a guerrilla leader and instead encouraged his soldiers to go home and begin rebuilding the nation.

He retired to what was then Washington College, where he set about innovating the offerings, adding classes in business and journalism.